#BALDOmination, the NU St. Bernards, and BOOM! Pacres!
The first weekend of UAAP Volleyball was a surreal experience for not only me but also anyone who has been a fan of volleyball since the mid 2000s. It’s amazing to think that the sport has gathered enough attention to merit an opening day at such a huge venue like the MoA Arena and Men’s games that are now televised live.
It wasn’t too long ago when elimination round games were played in generally empty venues, with the only patrons being the somewhat obligated parents and loved ones. But rumor spread of a pony-tailed beauty dominating the competition for FEU. Then, the Fab Five happened, the Lady Spikers had their dynasty built and abruptly crushed, the Bulldogs started dominating the Men’s division, and now, we have Alyssa Valdez as the hands down face of the UAAP. There was a time I could have probably brought full on camping equipment to a game, set up a tent on the bleachers, and covered a game by a campfire while roasting marshmallows. Now I can’t even put my feet up on a chair without being yanked by a bouncer.
The game is in a much better place now overall than where it was nearly a decade ago. This weekend’s slew of opening games wasn’t short of enthralling, with a nice balance of engaging classic volleyball developments to some mad, seemingly unforeseeable lineup changes. So let’s look back at what each team displayed in their debuts and weed out what were just anomalies, and what could potentially have precedents to the overall title picture for each tournament.
Men’s Volleyball: NU Bulldogs def. AdU Falcons, 25-23, 25-21, 25-12
If we went ahead and lined up all the UAAP Men’s teams, gathered a group of casual volleyball fans, then had them choose which team they thought looked like the best volleyball team, they’d probably all point to NU. They are as close to the perfect storm of a team as anyone in the collegiate ranks. Their combined wingspan is probably enough to cover the length of the NU campus.
Which is probably why they’re the defending champs. Their vertically gifted lineup and unwavering floor defense just overwhelmed their foes. I’ve never seen as many well orchestrated combination plays as I did when I watched this team unleash Armageddon on the Falcons. The Bulldogs have also always been the league’s best blocking team, keying in on their opponents best scoring options, reading opposing sets and sending constant double and sometimes even triple blocks to shove a cork in their opponents. But the Men’s league has always been incredibly tricky especially now with the sport on the brink of a renaissance locally. The road to a third straight title won’t be easy, but they’re definitely still the odds on favorites.
So where does that leave the Falcons? Often, when a team gets so decisively blown out, it’s hard to find anything good to say about them. But again, they had the unwelcome privilege of being the first victims of a stacked, defending champion. They had their best player, Michael Sudaria, held to just 8 points, and their reception was uncharacteristically faulty. But this is a young Adamson team in the middle stages of rebuilding. They’ve continued to plug young talent into their lineup since Ron Jay Galang left, and with perennial powerhouses set to go through a down season, this is the perfect time for them to gather experience and break into the Final Four.
But Adamson has to find a way to clean up their floor defense in order for them to properly mount any offensive momentum or else they might have to watch other teams eke by them for a Final Four slot.
Men’s Volleyball: Ateneo Blue Eagles def. FEU Tamaraws, 25-14, 25-19, 25-20
Last year’s runner-up, the Blue Eagles looked sharp in their debut, a rematch against their first round, Final Four foes from last season, the FEU Tamaraws. Ateneo crept up on a lot of teams last season as no one really expected eventual RoY/MVP Marck Espejo to be that good, that early. But his addition has propelled this Ateneo squad into instant contender status, and though they won’t be creeping on anyone this season, look for the Blue Eagles to give NU a run for its money for the top seed in the Final Four. Though Espejo will certainly draw much of the attention from opposing defenses, Ateneo still has several veterans who can buoy their attack from droughts.
What was most surprising to me was how the FEU lineup looked. With the loss of Carl Dela Calzada, this team visibly lacked the length they’ve boasted in seasons past, hence the thrashing from Ateneo. What’s even more alarming was the fact that their highest scorer only managed five points. Dela Calzada was an unstoppable force at the net and was also this team’s leading scorer. The ability of this team to cope with his graduation might be the determining factor to their chances at a return to the Final Four. This is just their first game and it was against the second best team last season. FEU has the time and personnel to keep their winning tradition going. But all I know is, almost all teams are showing off revamped lineups, and this Ateneo-FEU matchup usually lasted five sets last season.
Women’s Volleyball: UST Tigresses def. UE Lady Warriors 25-11, 25-12, 25-14
How much should we derive from this UST win? I really don’t want to take anything away from the Thomasinas after they played a tremendous game of volleyball. But isn’t this what they were supposed to do? Weren’t they supposed to bum-rush this Lady Warriors team?
And that’s where we go off from. Last season, these same Lady Tigresses were supposed to be a Final Four team given the way this team was built and with the additions they made throughout the offseason. But they lost some very winnable games for them, their sloppy play eventually leading to them dropping sets against teams they were supposed to dispose of in straight sets.
So it was an amazing change of pace to finally watch this team spread its wings and dominate a lesser opponent. Everyone was on point for the Tigresses as they refused to let go of the lead and momentum. There was a big question mark as to whether Lex Cabanos would be able to fill the role of lead setter, but if her first game was any indication of things to come, Cabanos should manage to keep this offense churning. Among those on the receiving end of Cabanos’ sets were EJ Laure, UST’s blue chip recruit who has drawn comparisons to fellow UST High alum, Alyssa Valdez. Laure looked great in her debut, pouring on her offensive onslaught in the first set and finishing with 8 points. Though just a rookie, you can tell simply by watching her that scoring just looks easy for her, although it did help that they were facing the vertically challenged Lady Warriors. This probably won’t happen often, but UST might be supremely entertaining when they roll out Boom! Pacres, and Cherry Rondina off the bench. Rondina and Pacres remind me a lot of Emman Monfort and Greg Slaughter with Ateneo’s men’s basketball team a few years back, being that when they come off the bench during timeouts, there is considerable size difference between them. The UST tandem will probably keep coming off the bench for the rest of their rookie season for UST but look for both of them to be integral parts of this UST team’s future.
Nonetheless, this mix of players UST has should be the best group Coach Mamon has had a chance to coach since he took the reins a few seasons ago. The Lady Tigresses will be a marvel to watch offensively with all the options they have available. Whether they can remain consistent in the other aspects of their game will determine if they can breakthrough the loaded middle pack of the tournament.
What can I say about the Lady Warriors? Well, it’s always to good to see a player get over whatever non-sport related problem she had and make her way back into the lineup. The problem is, UE needs a helluva lot more than Luisette Dawis to even just put up a fight. This team only managed 37 points and gave up 29 points in errors to UST, who only gave up 12 in the same category. But this team has relatively dynamic scorers in Shaya Adorador and Angelice Dacaymat who, if given enough room, could bop unprepared opponents. But the other teams who lost their debut matches over the weekend looked good in their matches, and this UE team didn’t. Wake me up when UE Women’s Volleyball becomes relevant.
Women’s Volleyball: ADMU Lady Eagles def. NU Lady Bulldogs 25-21, 25-18, 25-15
In all my years of covering local collegiate sports, I’ve never seen anyone have the individual impact on a team sport that Alyssa Valdez has had on women’s volleyball. You can try to poke holes in her game, but there hasn’t been anyone who can score at will like she can in the history of local women’s volleyball. There were stretches in Saturday’s game when NU would threaten to take the lead from the Lady Eagles. Each time Coach Bundit would call timeout, Alyssa would score consecutive points to pull her team away, culminating in her closing the game with three consecutive aces. She wound up with 28 points in just three sets- an insane number considering the efficiency she did it with (converting 20 of her 35 spike attempts).
Valdez can score from anywhere; she probably already had 10 points while she was tying her shoes in the dugout. It’s her teammates’ performance that’s going to decide their fate in their title defense as it was in their run last season. In their first game, the supporting cast looked on point, with much of the usual suspects pitching in here and there. Ella De Jesus looked especially potent in the match, pacing Valdez with 10 points of her own. Look for each player to have a shining moment for the Lady Eagles’ season, as the constant threat of Baldo will surely open things up for her teammates.
Looking at the stats sheet alone, you might think NU was just simply overwhelmed this match. But the Lady Bulldogs were able to keep it close early in the first two sets. They just seemed to wilt when the pressure mounted late in close sets. Jaja Santiago showed flashes of how devastatingly dominant she can be, pounding holes in Ateneo’s middle defense, but adding a new caveat to her game by occasionally venturing to the open area and unleashing her unmatched aerial assaults from there. She finished with 16 points (converting 15 of her 27 spike attempts).
But NU shares a common hurdle with their Men’s Basketball team. I think everyone can remember Bobby Park Jr.’s last run with NU. That team melted under UST’s intense defense and, most of all, UST’s insanely massive crowd. UST fans probably outnumbered NU fans that season 30:1, and that’s being modest.
The Lady Bulldogs seem to have the same problem. The Ateneo Women’s Volleyball crowd is composed of the wildest/most devoted fans in local sports (kinda like the Ginebra crowd- only replace grown-ass men with prepubescent girls), and they can really just grind on opponents who aren’t used to the sheer amount of fans. I don’t yet have the means to put this into solid numbers, but the number of aces Valdez gets in a game is greatly affected by the sheer terror inflected by legions of fans screaming at the top of their lungs right when the arena barker yells out Valdez’ name.
Against other teams last season, NU was clearly head and shoulders above the competition. This season, even with the loss of Dindin Santiago, NU is still a contender. They’re still teeming with firepower with veterans like Myla Pablo, and Rizza Mandapat manning the hitter positions. The key with them is if Ivy Perez can clean her game up in big games, in front of huge crowds- situations she’s struggled in historically. Perez is a gifted setter, with her height and uncanny ability to score off the second ball. But she just looked out of it in their first game, but there’s no time for her to lick her wounds as their next opponents, draws droves of people themselves. I guess the UAAP is just that way; there really is no rest for the weary.